We’re again diving into a significant section of Jesus’ teaching, the venerable Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:21-37. Aside from great spiritual insights, a curious notoriety is Jesus’ handling of the Jewish law with it diverse commands and prohibitions. Jesus noted earlier in Matthew, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). To further pile-drive the point, Jesus doubled-down in the next verse by saying, “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments . . . will be called least in the kingdom . . .” (Matthew 5:19).
Hence today’s focus, which is how Jesus reinterpreted the Jewish Law by deepening it, changing the meaning beyond the narrow boundary of what was literally written. It’s not surprising that Jesus had vast religious knowledge because as a rabbi (i.e., teacher), Jesus was well versed in the tanakh, the Jewish scriptures also known to modern day Christians as the Old Testament. What made Jesus’ understanding of the religious law distinctive was his perception of its deeper meaning. Jesus gave a broad reading of the religious law to his listeners. He used real-world, practical situations to describe just how comprehensive was God’s intention behind all the limitations of written religious rules.
In today’s section of the Sermon on the Mount discourse, Jesus shared three specific examples about how an existing commandment from the Jewish Law could be interpreted more comprehensively. The first example is that of murder. Jesus related this deadly emotion to anger, which Jesus said we must relinquish before God accepts our acts of piety and religious devotion. Then he gave the example of adultery, and Jesus commented that you could be guilty of this sexual sin by cultivating a pornographic attitude as much as by literally carrying it out. Lastly, Jesus discussed religious oaths, about which he cautioned his audience to avoid altogether. In other words, don’t promise this or that to God because we can’t control the future and it is often no more than a reckless act of pride thinking we can be so convinced of our future role.
There’s enormous significance in how Jesus interpreted the Jewish Law. Detesting hypocrisy, Jesus realized that simply following the precise letter of religious law was inadequate (and so it remains today). The spirit of religious law is more crucial than the letter, which people can alter at whim and spin in whatever direction pleases them. Cleverly-crafted legal statements cannot capture the complexity of life, hence Jesus tried to instill a more holistic view of what commandments were attempting to remedy. The underlying power of the laws and commands lay not so much in their raw statements as much as in the principled connections to everyday life. That is, Jesus strove to help people relate specific prohibitions to common ethical and moral problems.
What are you planning to do with the creeds, various statements of faith, the Ten Commandments, and all the other mostly Old Testament rules and regulations? Is it enough to follow the bare words? Do you attempt to ignore most or all of them? The great news is that we have God’s Spirit to help us in applying rules to life circumstances. We also know that the core principles of love and truth guide us as we seek to make choices about what is right and wrong. If we receive God’s assistance, we will enjoy a wider context from which to base our behavior and attitudes.